‘Wheelchair tennis saved my life’: Grimsby tennis star’s sporting journey after shock diagnosis
Gillian Mauro has always been competitive, but when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010, the rising tennis star faced her toughest challenge yet.
Prior to 2012, Grimsby-born Mauro played competitive tennis and it was one of her greatest passions.
However, two years after the shocking diagnosis, her condition deteriorated to the point where she could barely move to get the ball between the points, and she made the devastating decision to stop playing.
“I was just in tears,” she said.
Mauro has struggled with the loss of her favorite sport, but also with the symptoms of the disease: severe nerve pain from her torso to her toes and a level of fatigue she finds difficult to communicate to others.
The double whammy was tough.
“Going away from being so active … was really depressing,” she said.
In 2017 Mauro decided that she would try wheelchair tennis although she could not play disabled tennis but needed to be on the court.
After attending a trial session hosted by the Ontario Para Network (ONPARA), she was determined to make the switch.
However, one of the biggest hurdles in getting into the sport was getting the special wheelchair, which costs thousands of dollars. Luckily, her friends started a fundraiser and quickly raised the money.
Sport changed Mauro’s life. Not only for the competitive element she craved, but for the impact it had on her daily life.
“(It) has improved the way you deal with life, both physically and emotionally,” Mauro said.
Physically, the fitness brought about by sport helped in everyday life. Emotionally, it helped to reformulate her diagnosis and outlook on life. “Wheelchair tennis… made me realize what I can do, not what I can’t do.”
“(It) saved my life,” she said.
After a hiatus forced by COVID, Mauro resumed the game this summer and competed in an international tennis tournament at Grimsby Tennis Club.
On July 23, she was one of the torchbearers in the Grimsby Torch Relay ahead of the 2022 Canada Summer Games in Niagara.
And in 2020, Mauro published her book, The Girl In The Wheelchair: It’s Not That Bad, via Amazon.
ONPARA was instrumental in getting Mauro into the sport through the trial session, one of many that the organization organizes. They conduct the sessions in common rooms or rehabilitation clinics, where athletes talk to patients about opportunities to get into wheelchair sport.
Patients are often still coping with their new lifestyles after an injury or illness, but Doug Hannum, executive director at ONPARA, said it’s her job to show them the opportunities to get into wheelchair sport.
He said many athletes whose sporting lives have been transformed after an injury often have a wink when they discover the sport.
“Our job is to ignite that fire,” said Hannum.
Not everyone has a support system like Mauro that can fundraise for needed gear. To help with this, the organization also offers wheelchair loans to those entering the sport of wheelchairs, reducing financial hurdles.
ONPARA is funded by the Ontario Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport through the Ontario Amateur Sport Fund. The amount they receive will be calculated by ONPARA’s application for the program, said Zakiah Lalani, spokesman for the ministry.
In March 2022, the Department announced a $3 million investment to stabilize the post-Covid sport and leisure sector. ONPARA received funding to expand its network by working with select provincial sports organizations to add more para athletes to their member clubs.
In 2021-2022, ONPARA also received Quest for Gold funding to support team training camps.
“Our government is proud to encourage the participation of all in sports and recreational activities throughout the province,” Lalani said.
While grateful for the support received, Hannum said the organization could always use more money.
That’s partly because ONPARA only has about 300 members, far fewer than sports like soccer, and therefore can’t raise as much money from membership dues.
With additional funds, ONPARA could spend more on staff to support athletes and programs, and provide athletes with more individual funds such as: B. Assistance with the purchase and maintenance of wheelchairs.
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: After hearing Gillian Mauro’s story, Chris Pickles spoke to ONPARA about getting athletes into the sport and the funding challenges they face.